The late 90’s represented the pinnacle of basketball fever at Valparaiso University.
On the men’s side, the Drew family cemented their legacy by coupling Valpo Athletics’ hallmark moment – The Shot – with three consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances. Meanwhile, the women’s squad enjoyed a 72-42 record from the fall of 1996 through the spring of 2000. The campus was engulfed in pride and hysteria as Valparaiso University penetrated its brown and gold pin on the college hoops map. All was well in Northwest Indiana.
The pandemonium and nostalgia of the 1998 edition of March Madness resonate deeply with Crusader faithful. But while one of college basketball’s most famous father-son duos was taking the world by storm, a young woman quietly spent her afternoons inside the Athletics-Recreation Center preparing to compete at a world-class level.
Patty Cisneros’ (1997-2000) path to glory was hardly an ideal one. One of ten children (all of whom attended college), Cisneros began her post-secondary studies at Indiana University in the fall of 1996. The three-sport athlete at nearby River Forest High School’s life took a dramatic turn after she was involved in an automobile accident that claimed the use of her legs. She transferred to Valparaiso University shortly after the cruel chain of events. Facing extraordinary obstacles at the young age of 18, Cisneros found wheelchair basketball to be most therapeutic.
“When I moved back to Northwest Indiana, I got involved through the Chicago program of RIC (Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago) Express and started playing on a women’s team. From there, I learned of all of the possibilities of sport with having a disability, and of the Paralympics quickly thereafter,” Cisneros said.
Unbeknownst to many, the Paralympics occur parallel to the Olympic Games: same city, same year. Cisneros’ first taste of the international competition came in Sydney, Australia during the 2000 Summer Games. She concedes the initial spotlight of her first Paralympics was a bit blinding. Her team registered a fifth-place finish in the Land Down Under.
With the experience of Sydney under her belt, Cisneros returned to the prime-time stage in Athens in 2004 with a sharpened focus. There, Cisneros and the U.S. women’s wheelchair basketball team defeated Australia in the Gold Medal game. In turn, she became the first Valpo grad to don either an Olympic or Paralympic medal.
For an encore, Cisneros served as captain of the American team that defended its title at the 2008 Beijing Games after besting Germany in the Gold Medal game.
Cisneros is quick to praise Dr. Bill Steinbrecher for his contributions. She acknowledges her success may not have come to fruition without the former director of athletics’ relentless work.
“Dr. Steinbrecher did everything he could to help me whether it was getting a chair, scheduling times in the weight room, or getting my story out in the papers,” Cisneros mentioned.
A fellow member of the Valpo Athletics Hall of Fame, Steinbrecher speaks like a proud father of Cisneros.
“As I got to know her better I recognized how self-sufficient she had become following the accident. I admired her spirit and desire to get back into sports competition. I was so happy for her and her family on the day she graduated from Valparaiso University. She made the University proud and she’s a young woman I’ll never forget,” Steinbrecher recalls.
Cisneros also remembers Homer Drew providing shooting tips during open gym on the court that would eventually bear his name. Basketball created an indelible bond between Cisneros and the staff at Valpo.
Much has changed for Cisneros since hearing the Star-Spangled Banner atop the podium in Beijing six years ago.
She is set to begin year five as a fourth-grade teacher in the Denver Public School system. The ink on her marriage certificate is still damp. In a ceremony officiated by best friend and famous Paralympic champion Alana Nichols, Cisneros and Tony Prevo tied the knot just a couple weeks ago. Prevo, a top sales associate for Volkswagen, and Cisneros now call Colorado home. Their two-year old daughter, Elliana, represent the apple of their eyes.
“Winning gold medals I thought was the most incredible experience of my life, but really it was my daughter,” Cisneros said with a wide smile.
Bryce Drew will forever have The Shot, but Patty Cisneros owns gold.
It’s incredible the heights to which one can reach in a wheelchair.